What Is a Flagship Species? Discover 16 Examples

Closeup portrait of a siberian white tiger
© Zita Stankova/Shutterstock.com

Written by Nina Phillips

Published: May 13, 2024

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Flagship species are very important animals. They help to put a face to conservation efforts and help the average person realize how much is at stake unless efforts to protect animals and habitats are taken.

But what exactly is a flagship species and what are some examples? For that, you’ll have to keep reading.

What Is a Flagship Species?

Collage of Australian marsupial mammals, isolated on white background. Wallaby, Tasmanian Devil, Wombat, Kangaroo with Joey, Quokka and Koala.

Cute and cuddly animals often become flagship species.

©Benny Marty/Shutterstock.com

Flagship species, also known as charismatic species, are unique animals that have a lot of appeal to humans. These animals are often the face of conservation and sustainability efforts, because people tend to want to help them, and are more willing to donate when they think they’re helping animals they care for.

Most of the time, flagship species are threatened, endangered, or on the verge of extinction, making saving them a high priority. Usually, each country has its own flagship species, based on which animals are local to the country, and which ones need the most help. For example, the Iberian lynx is one of the flagship species in Spain.

How Long Have Flagship Species Been a Thing?

The idea of flagship species started out in the 1980s. This is when several organizations started really pushing for conservation. There’s no clear answer on who first came up with the idea, or who coined the name, but the phrase and practice quickly spread around.

The Importance of Flagship Species

Aerial view of the Borneo rainforest. Brunei

Flagship species help to protect habitats like above, and the animals that live there.

©Yusnizam Yusof/Shutterstock.com

Flagship species are important for many reasons. The first is that they help to pull in the attention of the general public. Think about it this way: would you go out of your way to donate to a project helping save a fly or a beautiful tiger?

Groups working to save all species will often promote hardships of these flagship species. This helps raise awareness for that particular animal, and the troubles that human growth and pollution have caused them.

However, the money and awareness raised by talking about these flagship species goes towards helping all animals, including the ones that would never be noticed.

For example, a group talking about saving the rainforests to help orangutans or tigers will ask people to donate so they can plant more trees. Or, they may have people sign a petition so they can protect a certain area of the rainforest.

While planting more trees or protecting a space will surely help orangutans and tigers, it will also help insects, snails, and other less conventionally cute species out there.

Examples of Flagship Species

Giant panda bear cub and Mother Breastfeeding Chengdu, China

Giant pandas are one of the more easily recognizable flagship species.

©dangdumrong/Shutterstock.com

Most flagship species are ones you’re intimately familiar with. They are often found in zoos, and they’re the larger animals that you’ll hear about the most often.

Flagship species have a few things in common. For one, they’re generally mammals. While this isn’t always the case, like the bald eagle, mammals are the most common by far. However, that is slowly starting to change to include more amphibians and reptiles.

Additionally, most of the animals aren’t scary, at least in appearance. Animals like hyenas aren’t often used, nor carrion beetles due to their creepy nature, sounds, and appearances. While some people are afraid of lions, bears, and tigers, it’s more of an awe-inspiring fear rather than a creepy fear or a sense of unease.

Instead, the animals are often more cute and cuddly-looking with an air of majesty. They’re furry and easily identifiable.

Because these animals are more often considered cute and intelligent, people have a habit of anthropomorphizing them. This is the human habit of explaining behaviors or expressions with a more human mindset.

There are a few other characteristics. To be a flagship species, the animal itself must be in danger, such as threatened, near extinct, or endangered. These animals are also dually classified as umbrella species, which means that by protecting these animals and their habitat, you also protect several other species and their habitat by default.

The northern spotted owls in California act as a good example. Conservationists pushed for protection of the old-growth forests that these animals lived in. When they did, they ended up also protecting salamander and mollusk species in the area. For this reason, northern spotted owls are an umbrella species.

Finally, another characteristic of these flagship species is they have cultural relevance. These are animals that are very important to certain groups. Think about America. What would it mean if the bald eagles went extinct?

Now that you understand some common characteristics of flagship species, let’s look at some examples.

  1. Bengal Tigers
  2. Asian Elephants
  3. African Elephants
  4. Giant Pandas
  5. Giraffes
  6. Polar Bears
  7. Sea Turtles
  8. Manatees
  9. Bald Eagles
  10. Black Rhinos
  11. Gorillas
  12. Golden Lion Tamarins
  13. Fossas
  14. Andean Bears
  15. Gray Wolves
  16. Indigo Snakes

Examples of Companies Using Flagship Species

Old Faithful Inn Yellowstone

©f11photo/Shutterstock.com

Whether you know it or not, there are examples of flagship species all around you. For example, the World Wildlife Fund uses a panda for their flagship species, despite talking about and raising awareness for many different animals.

Yellowstone has its own flagship species as well. If you ever go to the park, you’ll see many of their logos and toys center around gray wolves. In Tanzania, the local currency features black rhinos to raise awareness.


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About the Author

Nina is a writer at A-Z Animals, FIDIS Travel, and Giant Freakin Robot. Her focus is on wildlife, national parks, and the environment. She has been writing about animals for over three years. Nina holds a Bachelor's in Conservation Biology, which she uses when talking about animals and their natural habitats. In her free time, Nina also enjoys working on writing her novels and short stories. As a resident of Colorado, Nina enjoys getting out in nature, traveling, and watching snow hit the mountains from her enclosed porch.

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